Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TOM TOMORROW'S PERSPECTIVE

A sad but true (and funny) look back on '08. Can't wait for the continuation of this from one of my favorite cartoonists and political writers since his first panels appeared.

FREDDIE HUBBARD & ROBERT GRAHAM R.I.P.

Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard was one of those jazz musicians who was so competent and accomplished, you almost took him for granted. But his passing is a true loss for a generation of jazz musicians and music lovers.

Fortunately, his contributions to the art won't be missed because they're there in his many recordings as leader or sideman who crossed several arbitrary musical borders to have an impact beyond the more esoteric avant-jazz world of the '60s, which is where I first heard him.

I didn't always dig the "fusion" sound he learned working with Herbie Hancock, but it brought him a much wider and I'm sure more lucrative success, and I'm happy he had that. But if you want to hear him at his early best, check out his READY FOR FREDDIE LP or listen to his contributions on Eric Dolphy's OUT TO LUNCH! or Ornette Coleman's FREE JAZZ or Coltrane's ASCENSION.

Robert Graham was another cat whose art could be taken for granted in some ways. Known by too many—unfortunately in our celebrity culture—as Angelica Huston's husband, he gained recognition also for his sculpted nude statues for the L. A. Olympics in '84 which put him on the popular culture map, as did his more recent sculptures for the FDR memorial in DC.

Working mostly in the tradition of realistic representation, he didn't get the kind of insider art-world attention those riding the crest of the latest art trend wave do, but as a sculptor working in that tradition he was unmatched (and because of his public commissions, ala FDR's memorial, his fame was greater in many ways than the art-world approved bigees).

Being a Mexican-American who worked in that tradition might have also contributed to his often being overlooked by the avant-art world critics and promoters, because there was little that was polemical or even provocative in his work in the post-modern identity way. Though the commissions he chose obviously expressed the sympathies and perspectives of an outsider in the wider culture (i.e. his memorials to Duke Ellington in Central Park, Charlie Parker in Kansas City, Joe Louis in Detroit, etc., some of which are more abstract or symbolic).

But the best way to sum up Graham's work is to quote a fellow artist, Paul Harryn, from an email telling me of Graham's passing: "...cool guy - another one of those under rated venice artists, like ed moses - don't know if you ever saw his studio or his nude female figures - they were beautiful and i'm not crazy about contemporary figurative sculpture - but his, i enjoyed having a relationship with ... he died last saturday ... God bless him ..."

Yes indeed, God bless them both, and our condolences to their families and friends.

Monday, December 29, 2008

EMMA BEE BERNSTEIN R.I.P.

Emma Bee Bernstein was the daughter of poet Charles Bernstein and artist Susan Bee and from what I've learned was as articulate and creative as either or both (see this and this link). I didn't know her, but saw her a few times as a child over the years and mostly was struck by the joy she brought to the lives of her parents.

There is nothing I can say, or I assume anyone else, to Charles and Susan at the loss of Emma. Although we try anyway to offer our condolences and support and prayers, for whatever they may be worth.

That's one of the main results I've noticed so far from this tragic event, the outpouring of sympathy toward Charles and Susan and other family and friends of Emma. But there's also the testimonies to Emma herself, to her life and her work and art, and mostly to her having had an impact on those who knew her or even knew of her.

This is the utimate answer to the mystery of all death, but especially that of the young. The very notion of "time" is a human construct in many ways. My friend Hubert Selby Jr. used to talk about "the eternal now"—and his attempt to be present in that "eternal now" is probably what made hanging out with him always seem so timeless, as any concerns I usually had for the future or worries that I had messed up the past disappeared in his company.

From that experience and others, similar, and not, I eventually came to understand the obvious, that life is living, and how much that living is done consciously—aware of the "now" and filling it with complete commitment to each passing moment as rich in opportunity for discovery, for growth, for creativity, for understanding and acceptance and appreciation and inspiration even if only for change ad seemingly infinitum, as well as for tragedy and turmoil, emotional and psychological struggle—does "time" matter.

So that there are those, like Emma, whose lives may seem shorter than many, but because they were so filled with that kind of conscious living, filling each moment with as much as life can contain, their lives actually may be more complete, more fulfilled, more accomplished and to not be too obvious, alive, than many that may be longer by the calendar.

Though viewed from afar and second hand, Emma's accomplishments and the impact of her presence in the lives of family and friends and those who only passed through her life briefly, or vice versa, (like me), seems inordinately powerful and lasting, in ways that the lives of many who may have been around longer never will.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

HOLIDAY WISH

I hope the holidays have been and continue to be as stress free and joyful as humanly possible for all who read this.

And that despite the gloomy realities and projections, the new year is as healthy and peaceful, happy and productive, for all of us, also as humanly possible.

Being human isn't always any of the above, but it sure continues to be extremely interesting and often surprising. At least that's my experience. And I'd hate to miss whatever I don't expect might be coming my way. Hopefully we're all in for some pleasant surprises in 2009 as well as the unavoidable disappointments and tragedies.

I certainly can't think of too many other times in my life when I was so happy to see a year end and a new one begin, and not just because it'll be bye-bye Junior (it's not like his right-wing cronies and supporters and handlers are going to disappear into the sunset).

It's just been a tough year, full of much I'm happy to see behind us now, or soon. Here's to "the infinite possibilities" as my old friend and mentor Hubert Selby Jr. would say.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Friday, December 26, 2008

EARTHA KITT & HAROLD PINTER R.I.P.

I guess from the obituaries that most people remember Eartha Kitt as "Catwoman" on the Batman TV series. Not me.

I never watched much TV, outside of news and old movies and special live events like the Oscars or presidential debates.

I remember Kitt as the outrageously sensuous singer—some would say "jazz singer"—who defined a kind of sexy cool before "black" was "beautiful" (in Jesse Jackson's oft chanted refrain of the 1960s, picked up by songwriters and advertisers etc.).

She was impossibly seductive during the impossibly repressed 1950s, when Elvis' pelvis was banned from TV for awhile, and Dinah Shore was the epitome of "white" TV feminine charm (as far as singers went, maybe Donna Reed in the sitcom category) and Nat King Cole couldn't attract sponsors to his short-lived "black and white" TV show that many Southern stations refused to carry.

Pearl Bailey would appear on the Ed Sullivan show and belt out a song like the African-American response to Ethel Merman, or Lena Horne would be a Sullivan guest and sing from a posture of elegant refinement that made most other singers seem like peons in comparison, her beauty undeniable, but her aloofness making it seem almost frigid.

There were many other "black" singers whose appearances on TV in those repressed years were exciting for other reasons, from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but Eartha Kitt. There just simply was no one like her. The way she deliberately overdid the sexy bit, almost "camping" it up, as it seems now, but at the time, at least to this young white boy, it was anything but humorous. It was seriously sensual and political, making it clear that any arbitrary divisions the powers-that-be might have created and been holding onto with all their diminishing influence meant nothing in the face of Kitt's seductiveness that came through the TV cameras right into the living rooms of "blacks" and "whites" alike with the same sensual boldness, the same obvious claim of the right to cross barriers of race and sex and sensuality in ways barely whispered about back then, let alone flaunted.

Eartha Kitt was and will alway be one of a kind. May she rest in purring peace.

As for Pinter. I'm one of the few of my friends and fellow writers and actors and playgoers who don't think he's the greatest playwright of the age. I like some of his work and find it compelling. But a lot of it I find boring. And his famous "Pinteresque" technical originality, I thought was so obviously derivative of Samuel Beckett that it didn't even need pointing out.

I think what I'll miss most about his passing, is his fierce political criticism, especially of the Iraqi fiasco. He expressed it sometimes in ways that left no room for any nuance, or anyone else's perspective, even if complimentary. But at least he had the guts to state outright what he believed was the shameful glossing over of the true costs of the Iraq invasion and subsequent and continuing war.

May he rest in peace as well. Though I suspect neither of these two giants in their fields were ever contented to be at rest for very long. Both of them outrageous in their own ways, and willing to say whatever was on their minds, critics and tact and compromise be damned.

So maybe what I should be saying is let their restless honesty and fierce commitment to using their art as expressions of that honesty live on long after them, and let us pick up whatever slack their passing has left behind.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

THE BEGINNING OF "CHANGE"

There are complaints in the air (see my last post and the comments on it) that Obama is being too cautious, too inclusive, too tolerant and even dependent on persons whose views differ from his or from many of us who supported him.

As I have said before and will I'm sure say many times in the course of the coming months and years, Obama obviously has learned from the mistakes of the Carter and Clinton administrations (let alone the Reagan and Bushes) that in order to change some of the basic tenets and programs, as well as the direction, of our government and our country, he will need to have a lot of support from disparate interest groups who have influence on Congress and voters.

The Clintons' health plan, or initial policy on gays in the military, were everything their progressive and liberal supporters could have asked for. And they failed, blindsided by coalitions between right-wing, and even some moderate, members of Congress, the media and various powerful interest groups (e.g. health insurance companies).

Carter's energy proposals and aims were equally thwarted by powerful interests and the interests of the powerful, etc.

Reality dictates caution and bridge building and above all pragmatism. This is what Obama and his camp are showing me they are capable of.

Cries that inviting Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation is a slap in the face to gays are understandable, but as Melissa Etheridge says in the Huffington essay I linked to in my last post, there are nuances to this situation that go beyond demands of political purity.

When I was a boy, a skinny white Irish-American boy, in a time and place where a boy of my ethnic background and clan could cause neighborhood civil unrest by dating almost anyone out of his ethnic group, say an Italian, I chose to date an African-American girl.

The grief I got from every side, "blacks" as well as "whites"—terms even then I could see were not only racist but scientifically insupportable—hurt and offended me terribly. I was adamant about how right our cause was in the face of bigotry, official and otherwise.

Many of those I was upset with were loved ones, family and friends who had always been close and meant nothing but the best for me. But I turned my back on them because they couldn't totally reject the common beliefs of that time and place, as I was able to do. I had no tolerance for the intolerant.

When I went on to struggle against racism and for Civil Rights, I rejected those who did not share my perspective. But at times bent those objections in the face of obviously well-intentioned but misinformed people I encountered in the service and on the streets and in the music world and among even the bohemians and "Beats" and later "hippies" etc.

When that struggle incorporated the growing anti-Viet Nam war movement, again I had to face the reality that people I knew and loved, from my past, from my family and clan, from among those I served with in the military or later went to college classes with, had truly deep difficulties accepting a position that seemed to go against everything they had been taught and/or experienced.

I began to have some sympathy for their own struggle to get past their backgrounds and educations and personal histories. When people felt overwhelmed by those who insisted any support whatsoever for a government waging an unjust war was evil—meaning you couldn't pay taxes, even sales taxes on cigarettes, etc—I began to understand that there are degrees of commitment and dedication to a cause, and that many who cannot commit on the level I was able to, could still contribute toward the movement for peace in smaller ways.

By the time I joined forces with the emerging womens movement and insisted on the equality of the sexes in every aspect of life, and wrote and spoke and demonstrated and took actions to exemplify that belief, my personal cimmitment to these progressive causes had taken a toll not only on my family but on my creative and personal ambitions.

Then that involvement led me to the budding gay rights movement at the dawning of the 1970s, but I was beginning to understand that the extent of my kind of commitment to a cause was rare, and it was. I "came out" as a political act, not because I had been "in the closet"—since I had always been what society calls "straight"—but because I recognized that we all have, or at least I had, a capacity for more ways of loving others than most of us have been programmed or socialized into believing.

I lost my job as a college teacher, even more members of my family and friends, and a lot more, as a result of my action, which, by the way, very few actual "in the closet" gays were willing to take at the time, including many who were educating me about the evils of anti-gay attitudes and policies but were unwilling to risk losing their own jobs or friends and family, etc.

I pushed my perspective on everyone, sometimes way too much, and as a result lost many who may have been eventually supportive but were turned off by my persistent insistance on my own perspective.

I wanted the world to change immediately, but it didn't. It since has. Look at the election of Obama. But he didn't get ninety percent of the vote, he got just over half. And many many folks in our country didn't even vote. And he faces what has proven to be overwhelming opposition (note the media frenzy over possible conversations between a president-elect's staff with his state's governor, while the actual misdeeds and crimes of the present administration often continue to be overlooed and go unprosecuted, etc.).

Obama impresses me as someone who has thought about all this, learned from the past mistakes of other administrations (not that he won't make his own, he's human and we're talking about reality, something he seems to grasp better than many of his supporters) and is making moves to shore up as much support across the political spectrum as he possibly can so that when he attempts to make the kinds of changes Carter and Clinton couldn't pull off, he will have at least a chance.

So I say, give him a chance to prove himself, and cut your fellow humans some slack. Not everyone is as quick to see the benefits of change as some of us are, and resistance to change is a normal human reaction. But anyone who doubts that it will come, whether in the form they, or we, want, isn't paying attention.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

HOLIDAY MESSAGE FROM MELISSA ETHERIDGE

Thought this was a good articulation of the direction we are hopefully, most of us, going in. More understanding and acceptance, less knee jerk reaction.

Monday, December 22, 2008

NEWNESS

My computer's been crashing regularly for a year now, trying to tell me that skipping upgrading my operating system for several years was a mistake.

Then finally, a few days ago, it refused to cooperate at all. So I'm typing this up on my new computer, and despite all the amazing features it has that I don't understand how to use or why I would want to (for most of them), it's proving a challenge to get it to do what my old one did, even though it's the same make and model.

Is this a sign of age? Or just technophobia or technodyslexia?

Or is it just me?

Eventually it will become more familiar and easier and I'll be back in stride, but meanwhile, the posts may take a little longer to get up. Like this one.

And speaking of "newness"—I forgot my usual copy of THE NEW YORKER at the gym this morning, so grabbed whatever magazines were available, a year-end PEOPLE and ENTERTAINMENT, and flipping the pages trying to find something to engage my attention, I noticed that at least a third or more of the people they were writing about, or more accurately presenting photos of, I never heard of.

There was a time when I thought of myself as one of the most informed and aware persons I knew of. Obviously not when it comes to contemporary celebrity-hood. Is that because I don't watch reality TV? I have an eleven-year-old and plenty of friends of all ages and read pretty widely so am a little aware of newer music and movie stars and creators, but who are all these couples who are having babies or breaking up who I never heard of? Are they really helping sell magazines? Or contributing to the demise of much of the print media.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

AMAZING

I'm having computer problems, so until I get mine updated, I'm borrowing another to post this link to an amazing performance by a young Stevie Wonder that you have to watch all the way through to get the full impact of a side of his genuis I never saw or heard before.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

THE QUICKENING

THE QUICKENING is the title of a small book of poems (what people generally call "chapbooks" but I find that term limiting and a little dismissive) by Theresa Burns.

I received it in the mail a while ago and just finished reading it. And as I've written on this blog many times, it's these unexpected grace notes of creative-imagination-fulfilled, that lighten my days and always have.

It was an unexpected gift and one I'm grateful for. I especially loved the title poem:

THE QUICKENING

It has to be quiet before I feel it,
not just the radio and TV off,
but the hum of the truck filling the oil burner

next door gone, the sitter out with the baby.
I pick up the trail of raisins
they've left on the floor,

and when I sit down I feel it:
not a kick, but a finger curling,
or a yawn, the first toothless negotiation.

I'm concentrating, unable to answer,
holding my breath
to decipher its message,

the way my aunt held still at her son's wake,
her face tilted, intent,
as if she didn't recognize his bald-headed,

gray-suited, thirty-year-old body,
but could feel its music
moving through her, where it once began.

And if she were quiet enough
she might catch, three days after his death,
the last notes of him escaping,

a quickening in reverse, the engine
ticking out its heat,
the cells shutting down.

These days there are those in the poetry world who would label this kind of poem part of what Ron Silliman calls "The School of Quietude"—a category that he feels dominates the publishing and academic and awards world, which is probably true.

Ron and many others prefer poetry that presents more of a challenge in its use of language, that doesn't tell a narrative straight forwardly, no matter how elevated or original the imagery, but instead, challenges the reader and the words themselves to create complex structures that often defy meaning and even any implication of intent, but rather force the reader to react to the word combinations in original and often equally creative ways (though in many cases the reader in my experience often finds the challenge boring, even if at first they found it challenging).

There are many poets who write what is called "language poetry" that seemingly makes no sense though often evokes meanings and contexts beyond the poem itself, (see Ron's own lifetime masterpiece ALPHABETS [actually THE ALPHABET], available in Barnes & Nobles, I notice), much of which I dig and champion.

But my perspective for many years now has been, the more the merrier, including more readers and audiences reached with the power of words no matter how they're used as long as it works in one way or more. Limiting poetry to only one approach, or one end of the spectrum of approaches is as limiting as any diet, but in terms of art works, pointless.

If a poem enriches my day, my week, my years, I am grateful for it. And in no way do I mean this postscript to the poem above to be a justification for my digging it or even an apology for its style. It is a terrific poem, quiet or not, familiar in style or not. How can you not dig a phrase like "the first toothless negotiation" or the aunt's "face tilted" trying to "catch, three days after his death,/the last notes of him escaping"?

Nor do I mean in any way to dismiss "language poetry" since I have written and published many works that were once considered in that category and many poets who are considered "language poets" are among my favorite writers and friends, including Ron [and in retrospect it feels like I'm kind of setting him up in this post as a bit of a straw man, my apologies Ron if you read this and it comes across that way as I try to make the larger point that follows]. I just mean to make the point that eclecticism isn't so bad, and having a broad enough taste to include all kinds of perspectives and creative approaches to any art work makes my life richer and more satisfying, as well as bearable when things aren't going my way.

When I was young I only listened to jazz, and only "progressive" post-Parker jazz. All other music I deemed too simplistic, formulaic, un-original. At the time I dismissed the Village folkies, who were in my mind imitating old forms trying to be something they weren't or just way out of touch with the future where the kind of jazz I dug and played would reigjn supreme. Even some kid pretending to be something he wasn't, which I and a lot of others on the street saw right away, naming himself after the Welsh poet so popular at the time, Dylan Thomas.

Now Dylan Thomas is considered passe, too traditionally "poetic" for many in the avant-garde wing of the poetry world. And the kind of jazz I championed then is a required taste for the discriminating few, and we know what happened to the folkie Dylan. And these days I dig all kinds of music, as well as all kinds of art forms, including poetry, and am happy to welcome the poems of Theresa Burns onto my bookshelves among the most avant-garde (e.g. Ron Silliman) and the most traditional (e.g. Dylan Thomas). Hope she enjoys the company.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

BACH & LALLY(S)

These are troubled times for a lot of folks. It breaks my heart to see people I love hurting in any way. It makes me sad to see even people I don’t know hurting, especially the innocent.

But in the midst of all the bad news, there’s these moments of grace, which for me are often induced by some work of art that helps my heart and soul and mind transcend the daily sorrows of those in need in any way.

The variety show that my eleven-year-old son performed in, playing guitar in a band of boys his age and younger, and doing it very well, sparking a genuine outburst of appreciation from the audience—that occurred the weekend before and which I posted about—was equaled this past weekend by my two older children.

My older son, a father himself, has returned to school to earn a Masters in education and possibly become an elementary school teacher. He has worked at many jobs, the longest and most personally satisfying, if not most remunerative, was as a bass player in an L. A. rock’n’roll band.

He was good and was admired as such. Now living in New England with his wife and little boy, he is playing gigs with bands that play musical styles he wasn’t that schooled in (e.g. country), but has caught up on and is doing his usual great job with.

He has also taught himself to play guitar and a while ago thrilled me by showing me the chords to the Oscar winning song from a favorite film of ours ONCE, and we jammed on it for awhile, me on piano and him on guitar, an instrument almost brand new to him.

He also mastered a few favorite Beatles tunes and other great songs. But this past weekend, he played for me and his little brother and his son, a song he had written himself—words and music—on the guitar, for a class assignment on a book about the trial and tribulations of Geronimo Pratt, the L. A. Black Panther who was railroaded and spent decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

It’s a beautifully moving lament, sung from the perspective of Pratt, from a prison cell, to his mother, who never lost faith in him. There were layers of meaning to the lyrics and the melody, not only from Pratt’s life and experiences, but from my son’s. I was so impressed I wish I knew someone in the music biz like I used to so I could get a demo to them. But even if I were able to do that, no subsequent experience of the song could match hearing it for the first time in the intimacy of my son’s living room, with his little brother and little boy listening with me.

Then in the evening of the same day, the three boys and I went to a church in Great Barrington to experience Bach’s CHRISTMAS ORATORIO, Parts 1, 2 and 3, and to see and hear their aunt and sister, and my daughter, sing in the Soprano section of the chorus as part of the Berkshire Bach Singers.

Last year, which I posted about, she was part of a double chorus. This year it was “merely” thirty-four singers in the group. But because the concert took place in an old church, with the chorus draped around the old-style huge wooden pulpit (almost the width of the “stage” it was an intricately carved part of) and the Berkshire Bach Ensemble (a twenty-two piece orchestra) below and between them at the foot of the pulpit/stage crowding right up to the front pew—so that the conductor, James Bagwell, had to stand in the first pew to conduct—and my son-in-law had saved us seats in the fourth pew, the sound—without any electronic augmentation, including microphones and loudspeakers—was overwhelmingly rich and full, as if we were almost sitting in the middle of all this marvelous music.

I have friends who not just love Bach, but almost worship him, or at least his musical output. I remember decades ago visiting the late Sandy Bull—the great guitarist and music creator—in his home near mine in Santa Monica, where we would sometimes jam for hours, me on his electric keyboard and him on guitar or some other stringed instrument. But when I arrived he was inevitably sitting at the keyboard learning Bach pieces. Sandy adored Bach’s music, held it almost above all other music, including his own.

I never had that kind of passion for Bach, though I have always appreciated his music, the artistry, the originality in terms of the times, the musicality. But it isn’t music that ever made me swoon with pure joy at the sound of it, as so much music and other creative art can do for me.

But Saturday night, sitting in this old wooden pew among sweatered and scarved and multi-layered New Englanders (or visiting weekenders from New York and Boston and environs) on a bitterly cold night after an ice storm that had prevented half the chorus from making it to rehearsals the night before—and had left many of them still without heat or electricity—hearing this obscure series of almost fragmentary musical pieces rewritten for the Feast of the Nativity (after originally having been written to honor and hopefully impress and get a job from some “newly enthroned Saxon royalty”) that featured solo singers, instrumentalists and various combinations of them, I swooned.

To see my little guy and his nephew who is only several months younger than him, budding musicians themselves, being mostly mesmerized by the music and the performances, rather than bored or fidgety or in any way unable to appreciate the mastery of this group of dedicated music creators, was reward enough.

But then to experience my daughter as an integral part of it—I could hear her voice clearly, especially in the sections where only her group of eight sopranos were singing, and see only feet away her own enjoyment and exhilaration at being a part of something so significantly terrific.

The soloists were a group of two women and two men. The male tenor, Rufus Muller, having been called by a reviewer in the NY Times following a Carnegie Hall concert “easily the best tenor I have heard in a live Messiah” was the star of the evening to those in the know, and a humble one at that since most of the parts he sang were non-repetitive “recitatives,” more prose narration than song lyrics. But his skill and vocal chops still came through and probably heightened everyone else’s game.

The other soloists—two young women, one alto one soprano, both graduate music students at Bard were surprisingly up to the standards set by the tenor (though it was difficult to tell if you were sitting in the back of the church if their voices were strong enough to carry the more subtle tones that far distinctly), both of the women highly accomplished already with one due to debut at Carnegie Hall in May. The male bass was actually a baritone, but his skill and commitment mostly erased any difficulties the lower register presented.

The ensemble was incredibly good, keeping a smile so stuck on my face that it began to feel like I’d never not smile again. Every instrumentalist had an opportunity to shine in some segment of the evening’s music, and did. But it was the ensemble music that impressed the most. This is tricky stuff, some of it, a lot of it, and they were up to it in a way that didn’t allow for any mistakes since the audience was almost in their laps.

But it was the chorus, and if I say so myself, particularly the soprano section, that closed the deal for my finally understanding what is so magnificently unique about Bach’s music. Their voices pitched perfectly—not one off note, even slightly, to my critical ear—creating a unified sound that was angelic, nothing else could describe it.

As the sound they made poured over me, through me, engulfed me in the luxury of its pure artistry, I felt elated, overwhelmed with gratitude to be experiencing it, and deeply satisfied in ways that, for me, only art has ever created in a way that can be repeated and sustained, and the love I feel for my children, all of them there in that church, sharing this experience from our various and varied perspectives and experiences, but all moved and transfixed by the beauty humans are capable of.

Tough times we’re going through, for some it’s tougher than others, but for a few moments this past weekend, Saturday to be exact, me and my progeny transcended whatever problems we have in our lives and times and knew what perfection is possible for mere mortals, the kind that makes living through troubled times—and all times are troubled in some way as many authors have pointed out before me—worth it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TODAY'S QUOTE

"Monsters detract from our willingness to find something to like in everyone. Maybe we shouldn't let them do that." —Nick Piombino (from a recent post on his fait accompli blog)

Monday, December 15, 2008

THREE-WORD TITLE MOVIE LIST

Last night, my falling back to sleep exercise—taking off on my recent three-word book title list—was a three-word title list of movie favorites. Here's how far I got:

ALL ABOUT EVE
BIG SLEEP, THE
COOL WORLD, THE (Shirley Clark's flick)
DEAD MAN WALKING
EIGHT MEN OUT
FANNY AND ALEXANDER
GROSSE POINTE BLANK
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
INTO THE WILD
JULES AND JIM
KISS OF DEATH
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
MALTESE FALCON, THE
NO WAY OUT (the 1950s one with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier)
ON THE WATERFRONT
PHILADELPHIA STORY, THE
QUIET MAN, THE
REMEMBER MY NAME
SEVEN SAMURAI, THE
TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY
USUAL SUSPECTS, THE
V FOR VENDETTA
WAITING FOR GUFFMAN
X?
YOUNG SAVAGES, THE
ZERO FOR CONDUCT (ZERO DE CONDUITE)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

DOUBT (AND EXTREME ACTING)

Since the 1960s, there’s been a tendency among film actors who initially embraced the smoldering realism introduced by Brando and Dean and Montgomery Clift in the 1950s to start dabbling in the opposite, an over-the-top kind of hamming it up as they age.

Brando himself was guilty of this beginning with his performance in MISSOURI BREAKS (Dean and Clift may well have done it too had they lived longer). But given that in MISSOURI BREAKS Brando rarely does anything you’ve ever seen an actor do in a movie before, let alone a genre Western, it can be seen, at least by me, as brilliantly extreme acting.

In the case of his successors, like for instance Pacino and DiNiro. Pacino shifted from some of the most realistic depictions of film characters ever to that hamming it up stuff with that blind character he played who couldn’t stop saying “Hoo-hah” and DiNiro when his gangster imitations became so mannered all that was left was to parody them in comedies (often the best use of this tendency, as perfectly illustrated for my taste by BURN AFTER READING in which all the stars are asked to ham it up for the purposes of the dark humor that makes that movie work).

They’re still great actors, Pacino and DiNiro, as their earlier performances prove, and the occasional later performance as well. Maybe it’s just running out of ideas (directors aren’t immune to this tendency either, ala Scorcese with THE DEPARTED, a weak riff on themes his earlier work interpreted much more innovatively and powerfully).

(And speaking of THE DEPARTED, ever since THE SHINING Nicholson too has gone over the top in most of his performances, especially in THE DEPARTED. There are a few exceptions but not many.)

And now we have Meryl Streep in DOUBT. She has always been a mixed bag for my taste. I liked her best in comic roles where she seemed more juicy and alive and real. The one serious role where she managed to accomplish that as well for me was SOPHIE’S CHOICE. But a lot of her other roles, even the most critically acclaimed, fell way short for me. Like in THE DEER HUNTER, where she came across about as working class as Dame Edith, and ditto for IRONWEED.

But in recent years she seems to be having more fun and now in DOUBT going the way of Brando. Her accent is way too broad and at times all over the place (as Brando’s “Oirish” one was in MISSOURI BREAKS). Some of her gestures and actions are familiar from bad actors who indicate, as they say, instead of interpret, but in her hands these gestures —extreme face making and fist clenching etc.—come across almost as knowing nods to previous, pre-method styles of acting.

Not as extreme as Brando in MISSOURI BREAKS, but heading in that direction, her performance in DOUBT as Sister Aloysius is groundbreaking, You’ve never seen a nun talk or gesture or make faces like this woman. And yet, she grounds all this in what adds up on other levels to a solid portrayal of what many of these nuns could be like back in the day (the movie’s set in 1964 when things were rapidly changing in all spheres of American life, including the Catholic Parishes of the Bronx).

It’s a bravura performance that, I must admit, had me mesmerized. I loved it. I loved the crazy courage of it, or courageous craziness of it, and what appeared to me to be the fun of it. She really seemed to relish the chance to expand her repertoire of acting tools to incorporate the campy with never-before-seen-realism-quite-like-this, at least in terms of the stock repressed-strict-nun character.

And she’s supported ably by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his most subdued, for the most part, performances, and Amy Adams in one of hers. There are other more subtle and not so subtle performances that keep the film interesting, including several of the child actors—and an actress with a small role but a big impact, Viola Davis.

John Patrick Shanley not only wrote the play the film’s based on, and the screen adaptation, but he directed it as well, and for my taste, it is one of the better directed films I’ve seen this year. Maybe because it’s about a world I know pretty well and he nails at least some aspects of it pretty accurately, or because the tightness of the script and the action forced me to focus in a way a lot of movies these days fail to do because they attempt to do too much, cover too much ground or too wide an emotional spectrum (MILK and DEFIANCE good examples),

Or maybe it’s just that this is a truly adult script that raises questions about the human ways in which good and evil mix and often make clear choices and uncompromising judgments impossible to make, though we often make them just the same, which is equally human. In some ways it could be seen as a very bleak take (even overly melodramatic) on aspects of life in a Catholic grammar school and parish in the old days (I remember a lot more humor and fun and compassion and even insight and a little enlightenment, from some quarters at least) that stand in for many bleak things about life in our age as well, or any age.

But somehow, despite the subject matter and the ambivalence that pervades the movie (the ending included, which for me was the weakest moment of not only the actual text of the play/screenplay but of the subtext in Streep’s acting as well) and the overacting and too bleak perspective of what was in fact a much richer tapestry in my experience, DOUBT still kept me engaged throughout. It may do the same for you.

[Maybe I’ll initiate acting X games awards, awards for extreme acting. If so Streep looks headed to winning this year’s female one, (and the cast of BURN AFTER READING the extreme acting ensemble award).]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

BETTY PAGE R.I.P.

Or "Bettie" as today's NY Times article says was the real spelling.

I didn't know her name when I was a boy in the 1950s and discovered her open and friendly smile in her pin up photos in mens magazines of those pre-nudity—or any kind of too-much-information nakedness—times.

She was usually in a two piece bathing suit that couldn't even be called a bikini, because there was more to it than most bikinis. She had the kind of figure that seemed naturally beautiful then, before stick figure models became the norm. Curves in the right places, including her smile.

When she was rediscovered in the 1980s and later a film was made about her, I felt like what made her special back then was being misinterpreted. But in the end, I think I was wrong. I think her appeal was always her smile, which seemed to say, hey, it's okay to feel attracted to a pretty woman in a bathing suit or less. At least it's okay with this pretty woman. Enjoy. And we did.

Friday, December 12, 2008

METHENY ON KENNY G

Thanks to my friend, and excellent musician himself in his day, Tom Wilson, for hipping me to this. Read the whole thing, it's worth it, especially if you're a serious music lover.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

DEFIANCE

To follow up on my MILK post, where I went in expecting a masterpiece and found it sometimes missed the mark, I went into DEFIANCE with no expectations and actually ended up pretty much liking it, though it’s no masterpiece either and in fact misses that mark by a lot more than MILK does.

It is though another attempt to create an epic movie out of some real history, like MILK attempts to do. But director and co-screenwriter Edward Zwick doesn’t take the kinds of artistic risks or attempt to be as original in his filmmaking as Gus Van Sant does in MILK.

Like MILK (and so many other “based on a true story” historic films) DEFIANCE opens with actual historic footage, in this case of the persecution and execution of Jews by the Nazis. But unlike Van Sant, who uses historic footage throughout MILK, in ways that are both successful and not, Zwick immediately melds the opening historically real footage into the movie realm (by going from black and white to color in a scene that mimics the historic footage but is obviously not), as is usually the case with this technique.

It’s standard Hollywood moviemaking, and continues to be throughout, which, as I said, makes it less adventurous artistically or creatively original, but does help make it predictably satisfying for the usual audience expectations.

In fact where MILK tries to capture something that’s really never been seen in a film before—at least not as Van Sant does it—DEFIANCE borrows from all kinds of classic films about armed conflict and power struggles and Nazi oppression, with scenes reminiscent of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (the film adaptation), THE GODFATHER, SCHINDLER’S LIST etc.

It’s also full of filmic clichés and stereotypes and plot predictability, and yet it works. Mainly because it is a triumphant story in an otherwise unrelenting historic tragedy. And because despite the predictable plot points and fictionalized realities to conform to movie tropes, there are enough dramatic turns, even if expected, and scenes with acting and storyline that resonate with what we’re hoping for to keep us engaged if not surprised.

Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) plays the lead and has moments of fine acting and moments of not so fine acting. The same goes for his co-lead Live Schreiber. While the actor who plays their little brother, Jamie Bell (who has become a man since starring in Billy Elliot but still has a boyish screen presence) never falters, despite whatever clichéd line or action he’s being asked to perform.

The story itself, unknown to me and I suspect many who will see this movie, is what makes it so satisfying. A band of Jewish refugees surviving in the forrest while being hunted by Nazis and their Belarussian collaborators.

It’s such a compelling story that it works despite its shortcomings, including the strange accents (the movie uses the device of having Belarussian, I assume, spoken naturally with English subtitles, but the more secret language of the Jews (I assume Yiddish?) spoken in accented English that sometimes sounds Polish, sometimes Russian, sometimes American and in Craig’s case, sometimes British).

Like MILK, it’s worth seeing, though for entirely different reasons. Harvey Milk’s story most of us know, it’s the risk taking movie making, including the acting, that makes MILK worth seeing. It’s the opposite for DEFIANCE, the movie making is clichéd and predictable, but the story is uniquely compelling and worth savoring.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

MILK


I was expecting a masterpiece, from what I’d heard and read.

I don’t know about you, but too often when I see a film for which I have great expectations I end up disappointed, and vice versa. To some extent that was the case here.

It’s a masterful attempt to make Harvey Milk’s story seem epic—from closeted homosexual (until the early ‘70s) to “gay activist” (of the mid and later ‘70s) who, as most of us know, became a San Francisco city council member and was shot by fellow council member, Dan White, who also shot the mayor, George Moscone.

The fact that Moscone was straight, and that White was angry about a lot of stuff (and that his lawyers used the famous “Twinkie defense”—claiming his diet of junk food had effected his sanity), didn’t and doesn’t diminish Milk’s being portrayed then and still as a martyr for gay rights.

The story is in many ways relatively mundane and yet extremely complicated. Gus Van Sant captures both these realities fairly well, and the performances are terrific for the most part, but the screenplay leaves a lot to be desired for my taste. It’s one of those “this happened and then this happened” kind of narratives, with characters’ motivations often ignored, or contradicted (coming out of the closet will keep you from committing suicide, unless you’re the character who is way out of the closet and commits suicide for reasons that seem mundanely domestic as perhaps many suicides are, but nonetheless, the emotional impact the movie in that particular case is trying to convey gets lost in the superficiality of the character’s motives as acted out on screen).

And some of the concurrent history of gay rights activism is ignored as well to make it seem like Milk was just about single-handedly responsible for San Francisco having a gay neighborhood, in this case “the Castro,” and for gay rights in general becoming prominent on the local and national agenda.

I knew some of those involved in these struggles before Milk even moved to SF and “came out,” let alone got involved. In fact I was involved in events and actions and plans and writing and speeches and etc. before the political events portrayed in this film even occurred. These things were happening all across the country, mostly in major cities, but like the Civil Rights movement, there were all kinds of unsung heroes who were courageous enough to take a stand when nobody else was.

I understand this movie isn’t about them, but for my taste it needed to either reference all that in clearer and more narrative-ly relevant ways, or concentrate on Milk’s story in an even more personal way and reduce the constant nods to historic importance.

There is reference to the arrest and repression of homosexuals in the opening credits with footage and news photos of a gay bar being raided in what looks like the late 1950s/early ‘60s in Florida, I think it was. And there is footage of the local San Francisco gay scene, including the early days of “The Castro” before and after Milk arrived intertwined with the movie’s attempts to reproduce the look and feel of that period.

At times this works in creating a certain amount of historic reality. But it also, for my taste, made some of the new movie scenes look too posed and postured compared to the originals (especially evident, for me, in the real photos of the real characters flashed in the closing credits after photos of the actors portraying them).

Sean Penn does another one of his amazing transformations, which at times is more than Oscar worthy. But there are a few indulgent moments, the kind that can occur when his directors don’t protect him from the risks he takes as an actor (I believe that was the case in several scenes in MYSTIC RIVER for which he won an Oscar, and he may very well for this movie too), when suddenly I’m watching an actor taking a risk rather than a character being himself.

I love Penn’s artistic and political courage as an actor, director, writer, celebrity, etc. (and full disclosure, I knew him a little in Hollywood and he was always respectful and courteous with me). And I love Gus Van Sant’s equally brilliant creative risk taking, which often reaches the highest levels of artistic expression (and full disclosure here, I also know Gus and did a little writing on DRUGSTORE COWBOY which is one of his masterpieces for my taste).

But taking risks can sometimes make for unintended outcomes, like work coming across as seemingly indulgent where it was actually meant to be courageous and original (and very much the same things could be said about my work as well, not to put myself on their level but just speaking of artistic endeavor and accomplishment). Like Van Sant’s casting Robin Williams inappropriately as the shrink in GOOD WILL HUNTING. Maybe the studio forced that choice on him, or maybe he believed Williams was up to the challenge and thought it would work as an unexpected and original bit of casting, as sometimes has been the case with Williams in serious roles, but for me it ruined what is otherwise a great movie.

And Penn should have won Oscars for many roles, including the lead in DEAD MAN WALKING, maybe his greatest performance, and as a director on last year’s INTO THE WILD. And he certainly deserves it for several scenes in MILK where he is extraordinary in his characterization of what Milk may have really been like in private.

And there are supporting performances that are seamless in their mastery—Josh Brolin as the assassin Dan White, and James Franco as the conflicted boyfriend, for two.

And the cinematography is often exceptional as well (though the intertwining of historical footage and some daring lighting and framing makes for too many disparate “looks” that leaves some of the less adventurously filmed scenes look boring in comparison (which could have been intentional on Van Sant’s part, as he has attempted similarly disconcerting juxtapositions of styles in earlier movies that sometimes works).

In the end, it is a brave attempt to make a masterpiece that for me falls slightly short of that goal. In trying to tell an historically relevant story that is tragic (though some of the scenes attempting to convey that fall short while others succeed) and may have been heroic (though that aspect of Milk’s story comes across more as random or at times almost tedious) but is mostly mundane after the novelty of a Hollywood leading man, a straight icon, kissing and having sex with another man wears off (though it may not wear off for some, and wouldn’t it have been more remarkable and in keeping with the spirit of the film’s message and politics, if the leading man had actually been a Hollywood icon who is “gay” and “out”!).

But even if MILK is uneven, in my view, it’s definitely worth seeing, and timely, unfortunately, as recent anti-gay marriage laws continue to deprive gay men and lesbians from enjoying the full rights other citizens have.

Monday, December 8, 2008

3 CONNECTIONS/GOOD AND BAD

1.

Obama seems to me, and others obviously, to bridge the gap between "white" and "black" in this country, while at the same time helping to eliminate that whole idea. He has had to mediate between his own two (at least) ancestral paths to today and that is a big part of his appeal and also his insight and intelligence. Now he is continuing that approach by nominating strong figures for cabinet posts from both sides of the issues each agency or department has to deal with in the immediate future, and I suspect believes, quite rightly on the evidence of his past successes, that he can bridge those divisions and find programs that manifest the best of both, as he does.


2.

One of the "white" strands in the fabric of Obama's make up and roots is the Irish one. Thanks to Terence Winch for alerting me to this prescient essay by writer Ishmael Reed sparked by the passing of poet and writer Bob Callahan, a friend whose death I posted about early this year.

3.

Here's the "bad" connection. As I and others have written about for years now, it is Saudi Arabia that is behind much of the turmoil in the Middle East, mostly through it's funding of the most fundamental sect of Islam, but also through it's funding of the worst jihadists from Al Queda (as we know most of the 9/11 attacks were Saudis) to the group responsible for the recent Mumbai attacks. From yesterday's NY Times: "Lashkar [-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the attacks] was founded in 1989 [and] supported by Saudi money..." Maybe when Obama replaces Junior, whose family's fortune is totally intertwined and dependent on Saudi oil money, things will change vis-a-vis our tolerance of Saudi Arabia's central role in terrorism. Here's hoping.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

GOOD WEEK

My friend Hubert Selby Jr. used to try and get me to see how obvious it is that the concept of left includes the concept of right, that you can’t have up without down or pleasure without pain, or the concept of bad if you have the concept of good.

He helped me to learn to be grateful for it all, to accept the oneness of the whole deal, the fact that it’s all energy anyway, including us.

But still, it’s only human (he used to say “You’re just a people Michael” when I’d get down on myself for doing something I regretted or not doing something I thought I should have been able to or been better at etc.) to want things to be “good” all the time, events, people, the day, the week.

This week wasn’t necessarily more special than any other, but it just felt really good. Another thing it took me decades to understand, that even if the world is going through turmoil (when isn’t it?) and times look tough (when don’t they? at least in some ways) it’s possible to be happy, and vice versa.

As a lot of people do, I used to think my happiness depended on outside stuff, if I got that book published or won that prize or got that woman to fall for me or got that publicity or won that role or had enough to pay the rent for a year, let alone next month, etc.

But eventually, with the help of lots of books I read and many friends, including Selby, I understood that I could wake up one morning to a world exactly the same as the day before, and to circumstances exactly the same, yet feel differently. One morning happy, one morning not.

That was when I finally got that it depends on my relationship to those events and circumstances etc, what my perspective is and what I choose to do about the day, rather than the outside stuff.

So this past week was delightful because I made the choice to enjoy every bit of it and the world somehow seemed to compliment that choice.

It started with me meeting my friend RJ Eskow for dinner in Manhattan at an Irish restaurant near Penn Station (to make it convenient for me, which was generous of RJ).

Catching up in person instead of from across the continent was very nice, and sharing ideas and feelings and stories with someone who is into and understands and has experienced many of the kinds of things I am and have is always a pleasure.

Then it went right on. I won’t bore you with the details, but they included staying for my 11-year-old son’s tap dance lessons one evening and watching him so enjoy himself getting his intense energy out in such a specific and creative way, as well as watching him at rehearsals for a little rock’n’roll band formed for the variety show at his school.

The band performed Saturday afternoon and sounded, well, the only word for it is, “professional,” They sang and played a Sponge Bob song which they learned over the course of one rehearsal and then refined over a few more rehearsals.

My little guy played the guitar, several chord changes taught to him by my friend Torre, the drummer's and the bassist’s father, an accomplished musician who impressed upon me that my son got the chords he taught him (and my son does not take guitar lessons) after he showed them to him once!

His own sons learned their instruments equally without prior instruction and all three boys pulled it off, as I say, like professionals (with two smaller boys joining in the singing and a piano playing cousin of the bassist and drummer).

To watch my 11-year-old on stage enjoying himself and sharing the gift he has of being able to play music and dance fluidly and un-self-consciously and knowing how much he enjoyed it (afterwards he said “I love performing on stage for people”) erases all the confused homework assignments where the solutions to math problems for a fifth grader are written in some kind of new educational jargon that makes it almost impossible to fathom for me, let alone him, and other school frustrations.

If only there were a school that just catered to young kids’ artistic talents (like an elementary school version of the New York High School of Performing Arts). But given that there isn’t, at least not around here, this was the next best thing.

My heart beats lighter and yet more intensely every time any of my children or grandchildren are doing anything that brings them satisfaction and joy. Or friends for that matter. Or even acquaintances, or entire strangers. The delight I get from watching people experience the satisfaction of accomplishment in any way is one of the true blessings of life, at least my life.

Though I think most humans feel that way and that’s why the arts,—even if just the most popular ones like movies and music—garner so much of human attention. But even sports and politics and other human endeavors can give that same kind of satisfaction and joy to onlookers when someone achieves something that seems to personify the best of the human spirit and capacity for perfection, or as close as is humanly possible.

Anyway, it was a good week. Hope yours was too.

[PS: Here's a video of my son's performance posted to youtube. It was taken by a small camera in the audience so the sound doesn't really capture how good it came across (for instance my son's guitar work is hard to hear, etc.) but it'll give you the idea]

Friday, December 5, 2008

THREE (RELATIVELY) QUICK THOUGHTS

1. Notice how Rove and the rest of Junior’s handlers are working the spin machine to try and control how this administration will be seen and treated, including putting Junior and his lady on all the major networks for homey interviews (knowing liberals are kindhearted and therefore will probably feel sorry for them instead of criticizing him for still doing all he can to enrich his wealthy friends even if it hurts the rest of us) trying to make them seem like any normal old married couple (though watching the faces he makes and the remarks he screws up—as I’ve pointed out before, like in the book-length poem MARCH 18, 2003—he has no trouble speaking clearly when he’s threatening or making fun of or demanding etc. only when he’s trying to come up with an excuse for bad decisions or actions or looking for a way to cover himself or his cronies or just plain lying). While behind the scenes Junior and his cohorts are issuing executive orders to try and keep the next administration from undoing the harm they’ve done, including selling the government and the country to their cronies (like making public land available for even more mining and logging and destruction etc. and as reported in today’s NY Times revising the rules so that the new Congress can’t veto these changes in the status of public lands et-endlessly-cetera).

2. Why isn’t it obvious to more in the media that the rightwing is still busy manipulating them, like into seeing the Detroit big three as not worth bailing out because they’re so inefficient and blaming that on the unions rather than on bad designs and engineering and responses to changing energy needs etc. whereas the Wall Street idiots who caused the financial collapse that started with them and is now impacting the entire world, these guys haven’t even been indicted or even had their mega-salaries taken away while the rest of us suffer. Check out this recent post by Michael Moore on Huffington for a great take on this issue.

3. Anyone who thinks all the rightwing is going to do is try and spin Junior’s eight years as the great protection of our country from another terrorist attack and therefore a success isn’t thinking. They’re going to do everything they can to undermine Obama and his administration and anything the new Congress tries to get done, just as they did for Carter and Clinton. In Carter’s case they pulled all kinds of illegal subversive jive that ended up destroying whatever credibility he started out with, and with Clinton they just backed him into a corner and kept him pretty much there playing defense his whole two terms. Because he was so smart as a politician and an intellect, he still managed to get some things done and gave us the most prosperous and peaceful years of any administration in recent history, but the big plans he had for reforming health care etc. were so well undermined by the rightwing and their corporate allies, or masters actually, that anything that might have permanently helped working people, i.e. most of us, was kept in a constant state of defensiveness until Junior could get in and eliminate it for good. Obama has probably been wise in picking such high profile and centrist people for his top posts, making it possible for him to get some things done with less time and energy wasted on fighting back the inevitable rightwing attacks, which already include trying to get Obama’s supporters to become disillusioned with his appointments and the statements and decisions he’s already making. And as always, the media plays right along, except for my new favorite news and opinion show, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC (and The Daily Show has been kicking butt again lately too on these issues).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

THREE-WORD TITLE LIST

Last night’s noises woke me laughing. For some reason I woke up with a scene in my head from that parody of old epic airplane films, AIRPLANE!, where the star, Robert Hayes' (a really nice guy I got to know a little at a few parties in Hollywood back in the day) pilot character says he has “a drinking problem” and then proves it by repeatedly missing his mouth with the glass his drink is in, spilling the liquid all over his forehead, cheek, etc.

I watched the movie a few weeks ago with my eleven-year-old, who didn’t get half the references, and the other half I was busy distracting him from since they were cruder and more graphic than I remember (especially for a PG movie).

But after a few chuckles, I tried to fall back asleep and—for whatever inexplicable reason that these things come to us, or at least me, in the middle of the night—I had the sudden realization that the three books I grouped together a few posts back all had three-word titles.

Then I realized that a lot of my most successful books also had three word titles—ROCKY DIES YELLOW, CATCH MY BREATH, CANT BE WRONG, IT’S NOT NOSTALGIA, etc.

So I started to make another alphabet list to help me fall back asleep, this one of favorite books with three word titles, a lot instantly sprang to mind, as they say. This is how far I got before I was snoozing again:

ALL BOWED DOWN by Ray DiPalma, ALONG THE RAILS by Elio Schneeman
BODY & SOUL by Frank Conroy, THE BEAUTIFUL INDIFFERENCE by Terence Winch, A BOY’S NOVEL by Barry Gifford, BLUES & APOLOGIES by Robert Slater, BREAD & FISH by Mark Terrill
CONFESSIONS OF ZENO by Italo Svevo, THE CRYSTAL LITHIUM by James Schuyler, THE CARGO CULT by John Thorpe
DINNERS AND NIGHTMARES by Diane di Prima, DOCTOR WILLIAMS’ HEIRESSES by Alice Notley
EARTH HOUSE HOLD by Gary Snyder, EARLY MORNING WIND by Dale Herd
FARMERS’ DAUGHTERS, THE by William Carlos Williams, FRIENDSHIP WITH THINGS by Elaine Equi
GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT by Jean Rhys, THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE GALLERY GOERS by Ray DiPalma, THE GREAT INDOORS by Terence Winch
HOW IT IS by Samuel Beckett, HYMN TO LIFE by James Schuyler, HOW SPRING COMES by Alice Notley, HEARTS IN SPACE by Maureen Owen
IN OUR TIME by Ernest Hemingway, I’M NOT STILLER by Max Frisch, IN BALTIC CIRCLES by Paul Violi
JUMPING THE LINE by Ted Greenwald
KABIR BOOK, THE by Robert Bly
LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman, LIGHT & SHADOW by Simon Schuchat, THE LATE SHOW by David Trinidad, LOOK SLIMMER INSTANTLY! By Jerome Sala
MANY HAPPY RETURNS by Ted Berrigan, MOVING RIGHT ALONG by Kenward Elmslie, MORE WINNOWED FRAGMENTS by Simon Pettet
NOTHING FOR YOU by Ted Berrigan, NUMBERS AND TEMPERS by Ray DiPalma, THE NANCY BOOK by Joe Brainard
ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac
PRIVATE NO PARKING by d. a. levy, A PERSONAL ANTHOLOGY by Jorge Luis Borges, PARADISE & METHOD by Bruce Andrews, POCKETS OF WHEAT by Geoffrey Young
QUARE FELLOW, THE by Brendan Behan
RING OF BONE by Lew Welch, RIVERS AND MOUNTAINS by John Ashbery, RIVER THROUGH RIVERTOWN by Merrill Gilfillan
SPRING & ALL by William Carlos Williams, A SERIAL BIOGRAPHY by Tom Raworth, THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES by Roberto Bolano
THIS IN WHICH by George Oppen, THAT SPECIAL PLACE by Terence Winch
USE NO HOOKS by Ted Greenwald
VITA NUOVA, LA by Dante, VISIONS OF CODY, VISIONS OF GERARD and VANITY OF DULOUZ by Jack Kerouac, VIEWS WITHOUT ROOMS by Elaine Equi
WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett, WORKS ON PAPER by Tony Towle, THE WHITE MUSEUM by Lynne Dreyer, THE WILLOW TREE by Hubert Selby Jr.
X?
Y?
Z?

[PS: After I wrote the above, last night I remembered two other favorite books I wrote about on this blog, also with three word titles: Robert Nathan's PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and Larry Kirwin's GREEN SUEDE SHOES]

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ODETTA R.I.P.

It's hard to believe she was only 77!

Hearing recordings of her singing in the 1950s and '60s, she already sounded like some ancient treasure rediscovered to bring strength and inspiration to our more modern times.

To realize now that she was only in her twenties when she had such a huge impact on "American" music, e.g. the young Bob Dylan, and just turning thirty when she sang at the 1963 march on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, is breathttaking. I didn't know that then, and am amazed to discover it now, only on news of her death.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

LIKE WE DIDN’T KNOW

“The U.S. economy officially sank into a recession last December, which means that the downturn is already longer than the average for all recessions since World War II.” —NY Times 12/2/08

When I was a kid, my father—who lost everything in the first few years of the Great Depression, before FDR was elected, and then almost lost everything again during what he called "the Eisenhower recession"—would point out the number of vacant stores in our town and say “You can always tell if there’s a Republican or Democrat in the White House by counting the number of stores that have gone out of business.”

He believed that the policies of the Republicans favored the “big boys”—as he called them—who were able to buy back whatever my old man owned for “a dime on the dollar” as he’d say, “or sometimes a nickel” during economic bad times.

In other words, as smaller businesses failed, bigger businesses could gobble them up cheap.

My father was a seventh-grade drop out, a self-made man, as they used to say, who always had some sort of business going on, even if it was just “making book.” And his political philosophy was almost as simple as his father’s—an Irish peasant immigrant who became the first cop in our town—which was “If you got a dollar in your pocket, you’re a Democrat, if you got two or more, you’re a Republican.”

Those little sayings always stayed with me, and over the years I’ve always paid close attention to the number of vacant stores wherever I lived, and when they started increasing, sure enough, a Republican would be in the White House.

Sometimes it was during what the economists called a “recession” and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always knew what it was. Just as I’ve been aware for the past year, as I’m sure most of us have, that things weren’t going well economically, because in my little town, only one town over from where I grew up, the store vacancies have continued to increase (including recently a Ford dealership that had been here since I was kid and before).

Glad the economists and now the politicians will be catching up. And hopefully, the new Democratic administration will once again find a way out of the mess they, and the rest of us, have been left with, and the young folks will remember the lesson. Unless you’re big enough to withstand a recession, or even a depression, and can take advantage of the reduction in prices of property and businesses and etc., you best vote for the Democratic ticket.

Monday, December 1, 2008

FAVORITE 2008 MOVIES SO FAR

Here's a short list I came up with last night to help me get back to sleep after the rattling pipes of the steam heat radiators in my apartment woke me up. My favorite flicks so far this year:

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
THE VISITOR
FROZEN RIVER
BURN AFTER READING
STOP-LOSS
WALL-E
INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (mostly for my friend Karen Allen's delightful return performance as the "Marion Ravenwood" character from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

This movie is either incredibly timely, or unfortunately timed. Because it’s mostly set in Mumbai (“formerly Bombay” as they say) where the recent terrorist attacks occurred and are still being resolved as I write this.

And, the lead characters are Muslim children from the sprawling Mumbai slums, who have suffered the same kinds of humiliation and degradation and discrimination that experts say is at the root of the indigenous Islamic resistance movement in India.

But SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is not a political treatise, or even a work of social analysis, it’s an entertaining and engaging old fashioned fictional movie with some new fashioned twists, and one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

I’m not crazy about all of director Danny Boyle’s movies. But I loved his first one, SHALLOW GRAVE, and now his latest, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. It has the same dark humor, fast pace, and somewhat contrived but rhythmically precise and perfectly executed plot devices of SHALLOW GRAVE, only SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is more epic, more beautiful, and more moving (with the help of a co-director Loveleen Tandan, who assisted on MONSOON WEDDING and has also worked as a film actor).

This film was obviously meant to take advantage of Mumbai’s new world-class status as one of the thriving success stories of India’s economic boom (the reason it was the target of the terrorist attacks). Unfortunately, now it will be connected to the attacks and the Muslim/Hindu conflict, even though the story is much more a combination of old style Hollywood, new style Bollywood, and the latest from the independent movie scene, than anything having to do with the current crisis.

But man does it work, or at least it did for me.

It uses three sets of actors for the different ages of the three leads who go from little children to young adults, and from the slums of a pre-economic-boom Mumbai to the heights of where that economic boom might take three orphaned slum dwellers.

The spirit of Charles Dickens fills the film with the kind of social scope combined with the tragic details of poverty that movies have abandoned for a long time now, but maybe we’ll be seeing more of with the worldwide financial crisis.

It was adapted by Simon Beaufoy (best known for his script for THE FULL MONTY) from a novel by Vikas Swarup, and as with the co-directors and cast and music etc. the combination of world class talents from England and India, among other countries, gives this flick a lot of it’s shine, and shine it does.

All the actors are excellent, the lead in particular, Dev Patel, (though there have been complaints that because he was raised in England he doesn’t have the proper slum accent) and the supporting actress Frieda Pinto, who is not only a fine actor but a beautiful screen presence (the kind that will cause many in the audience to fall in love with her in that way many of us do for newly discovered, to us. movie stars).

The soundtrack is terrific too (my eleven-year-old son will be delighted to hear that his favorite MIA song is used on it) and the cinematography deserves some kind of award, as well as the editing.

If you see it, be sure to stay for the credits, it’s the punctuation on the movie. And if you get that, you got the movie and will leave satisfied.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

GIRLS LIKE US, A FREEWHEELIN’ TIME, YOU’LL BE OKAY

These three books focus on a time when women went from almost total dependence on men to almost total independence from men. At least in the general culture of the period from the 1940s through the 1970s.

GIRLS LIKE US is the story of the culmination of that time of what became known as feminism’s “second wave.” But it’s not about the politics or theories, it’s about the application of newly developing ideas in the practice of musical entertainment.

Sheila Weller subtitles her book: “CAROLE KING, JONI MITCHELL, CARLY SIMON—and the JOURNEY of a GENERATION”—and that’s the story she tries to tell.

Having been there, even as a male, I can attest to her skill at stringing personal and public details together to create the atmosphere and feeling of those times, as well as the excitement, experimentation, discoveries and disappointments.

She gets a few things wrong, from my knowledge and experience, but not enough to get in the way or alter her basic theme: that these three women represented and helped move forward the cause of a generation of women.

The book begins with Carole King, rightfully, since she was a successful songwriter while still in her teens, before the other two even realized what they wanted to do (and a nod of acknowledgment to Suzanne Greco who first recommended I read it).

King was a New York Jewish kid who fell in love with early R & B and while still a teenager created songs with her partner, and eventual husband and ex-husband, Gerry Goffin that became giant hits for black singers. Like The Shirelles (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”—the first #1 hit by a black female singing group) and The Drifters (“Up On the Roof”) among many more.

She was on the cusp of a generation in which women still married early, had children and stayed at home to raise them. She followed that path (again, as a teenager), but in between cooking and doing the laundry and shopping, she managed to write melodies, for her husband to put lyrics to, which became the emblematic songs of her times.

Because of her ethnic looks—her seemingly uncontrollably curly hair, her strong nose—she was self-conscious about her appearance, and her husband’s philandering didn’t help. But her confidence at the piano composing music and playing it and arranging it and recording it, was always rock solid—a contradiction that eventually was resolved, but not before some heartache.

The author points out the “fact” that King was not the “pretty” girl and that Joni Mitchell was, in the circles Mitchell traveled in growing up in Canada and setting out for the USA and music stardom. But I always found Carole King incredibly attractive and Joni Mitchell not very. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the kind of mass cultural branding that left most people back then believing the conventional wisdom that straight blonde hair and an upturned nose equaled beauty.

Mitchell’s achievements as she earned her way to the top of the music business with original lyrics and melodies, as well as guitar technique, made her an icon of women moving into the male dominated singer/songwriter scene.

Her story includes the obvious tragedy of her now known, but secret for decades, abandonment of the child she gave birth to as a young woman. But described as part of the larger story of women finding their way to a new kind of independence, artistically but also in terms of the social order and relationships with males, the nuances as well as the profound depths of this transitional time and Mitchell’s place in it is really well told.

As is Carly Simon’s equally moving story, not because of the material obstacles she had to overcome—she was a well-educated beauty from a wealthy and well established family (her father is the Simon in Simon & Schuster of book publishing fame)—but because of the way those privileges were seen in the culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s and the ways she chose to incorporate them into her art.

I couldn’t help being persuaded by Weller’s mostly excellent research and the ways in which she ties the personal and creative stories of these three women with what was happening in society and the world at large during the years their talents were blossoming. So that after reading this book I now see these three women differently (though I always got King’s contribution to the music of my time, and appreciated Mitchell’s musicianship and Simon’s image if not her substance), as icons not of pop music success for women, but of emblems of what women were going through, thinking about, trying to achieve or figure out or work through to new discoveries of what it might mean to be a woman in their times in ways that have proven deeply instrumental in changing the very heart of our culture.

A FREEWHEELIN’ TIME is the story of Suze Rotolo, the girl on THE FREEWHEELIN’ BOB DYLAN album, clutching his arm as they walk down the middle of a Geenwich Village street on an obviously blustery winter’s day in 1962.

Subtitled “A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” it concentrates mostly on the part of her story that coincides with her close connection to Dylan, but it’s so much more than that. It’s really a well-told story of a young woman’s self discovery on the cutting edge of times that were dramatically changing.

Rotolo was only a teenager when she met Dylan, barely out of his teens himself. But she was the more sophisticated when it came to New York City, leftist politics, the art and performance scene in the Village and downtown environs, and life in general.

Though he was passing himself off at the time as a teenage hobo who’d been born in the Southwest and worked as a carnie and rode freight trains and embodied the ideals of the restless American spirit, he was actually a middle-class college dropout from a respectable Jewish American family that was supporting him while he tried to make it in the music business in New York City at the beginning of a new decade.

She was uncomfortable when she found out how much of his life story, that he had told to friends and reporters and music business executives, was untrue, and even more uncomfortable with the changes she saw in him and the people who he surrounded himself with as fame came fast and furious.

She’s less critical than the above makes it sound though, because she’s sympathetic to what Dylan was trying to achieve and the odds he was facing, as well as honest about how well he achieved it and the price genius sometimes has to pay, or more accurately, those around the “genius” have to pay.

But it’s her story, and it’s a very engaging one, told economically and honestly and with accuracy (this is a time and a scene I saw first hand as a teenage “jazz musician” and budding poet running the same streets and parties and bars and etc. at the same time, just from a different perspective (my friends then were almost exclusively black and not into the folk scene, nor was I at the time)).

She gets a few things wrong, but nothing serious, and I love her voice as it comes through on the page, and her perspective, which is humble yet solidly direct, clear, consistent and strong. She struggled as a teenage female known as the star’s girl rather than as the artist she was becoming or for her independence in the face of age-old attitudes and obstacles.

If the three music creators in GIRLS LIKE US expressed through their music what they and other women were doing to break down social and sexual and artistic and political barriers, Rotolo was doing the same several years earlier and on her own, discovering ways to follow her own heart and desires.

It’s a great story and reminded me a little of poet Diane di Prima’s terrific memoir RECOLLECTIONS OF MY LIFE AS A WOMAN, which also emphasized her early years as a Village bohemian a few years before Rotolo arrived on the scene. Both were independent minded Italian-American girls from the boroughs who made the Village their home and owned it in ways a lot of others never did.

Di Prima was associated with the Beats, as Dylan and in her way Rotolo was, since the “hippie” thing had yet to happen when the main events of Dylan’s transformation into generational star and symbol were occurring. But the original Beats met and developed their theories and ways of making art, mostly writing, in the 1940s, and that’s where YOU’LL BE OKAY comes in.

Subtitled “MY LIFE WITH JACK KEROUAC” it’s the story of another “genius’s girl”—Kerouac’s first wife. Always referred to by Kerouac and others writing about his life as Edie Parker, either she or the publishers chose to use the name Edie Kerouac-Parker as the author of this memoir.

It was written over a period of years but published posthumously, so it’s impossible to know how true it is to her original writing. But the editors—Timothy Moran and Bill Morgan—assure the reader that it’s Edie doing the writing, with a few minor exceptions, and it’s easy to believe, because the voice is distinct and uniquely individual.

Though it’s also a voice you may recognize, as I did. Edie was obviously, like all the women in these books, independent in ways that were “ahead of her time” but not unknown. Most of us had aunts or great aunts or others we knew or heard about like Edie—a free spirited, independent, party loving, straight talking individualist, as they used to say.

Her story clears up a lot of the speculation about Kerouac as a husband, lover, and friend, and makes him out to be the man a lot of us have always found in his books, well intentioned, often kind and gentle and loving, dedicated to his writing and the life of a writer.

But it’s her story, and it’s a great window into what it was like to be an attractive and adventurous young woman in the midst of an artistic revolution that would eventually become the cultural one that would change the lives of the women in those other books in the years that followed.

Joyce Johnson’s MINOR CHARACTERS, the account of her time as Kerouac’s girlfriend just when he went from obscure and broke unknown to the bestselling James Dean of novelists stardom overnight, is more literary and a beautifully insightful and bright book worth reading. But so is YOU’LL BE OKAY in its more conversational talking-over-a-drink in a bar, or at the kitchen table way.

I recommend all three books for Christmas presents, especially for any friends who dig Dylan or Kerouac or King or Mitchell or Simon, or who just love intimate histories of our recent “American” past.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

SOMETIMES IT TAKES A WHILE TO GET IT LIST

I was thinking last night, trying to get back to sleep after the garbage trucks woke me, about this documentary I caught part of recently on the Sundance channel about The Who.

Watching it, I realized they were a lot more interesting as artists and creators than I had given them credit for back when. I remembered an argument over them, in fact, with a smart young guy, probably only a few years younger than me but at the time it seemed like a generation, touting The Who as superior to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

I argued passionately and probably too aggressively as I always used to do—and sometimes still do—but he didn’t give an inch and got kind of smirkily superior in his dismissals of my point of view, which drove me crazy. I ended up judging him as a self-righteous little prig, which further influenced me to NOT take The Who as seriously as I might have otherwise been inclined to.

Don’t get me wrong, I dug them, just not like I did “artists” whose creations I instantly fell in love with. But after the documentary, I realized that a lot of what I had argued decades ago with that younger male was invalid. I hadn’t known what I was talking about as it turns out.

What that got me thinking about last night was how some artists’ work—whether music or poetry or paintings or whatever—I fall in love with instantly while others I eventually come to totally dig I initially reject or am suspicious or critical of.

For instance I dug The Rolling Stones from the git go (though with some reservations after that initial impression and some criticisms that have multiplied over the years), but resisted The Beatles initially, until I worked out an early tune of theirs, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” (“ooo wah ooo”) on the piano and realized how original and interesting it was for rock’n’roll at the time (including the Stones).

Anyway, all that led me to attempt another alphabet list of artists whose work it took some time (sometimes only days sometimes years, decades) to get how great they are (and who are now among my all time favorites at what they do):

Ashbery, John and Casey Affleck
Beatles, The, The Beach Boys and Ted Berrigan
Carey, Mariah (not all her songs are great but her voice and how she uses it is)
Dickenson, Emily and James Dean
Eigner, Larry
Fitzgerald, F. Scott and James Fee
Guston, Phillip and Green Day
Hepburn, Katherine
Ives, Charles
Jones, James
Kitaj, R. B.
Laughton, Charles
Motherwell, Robert, Henry Miller, Michael McClure and Elizabeth Murray
Northup, Harry E.
O’Hara, Frank
Presley, Elvis and Prince
Queen (again, not all their songs are great but their approaches to them are, even if only sometimes in an overboard rock-campy way)
Rilke, Rainer Maria
Shaw, Artie and Hubert Selby Jr.
Taylor, Cecil
U2
Violi, Paul
Who, The
X (the band)
Young, Geoffrey
Zukofsky, Louis

Monday, November 24, 2008

A RESPONSE TO THE SO-CALLED "WAR ON CHRISTMAS"

I wrote about this last holiday and maybe will figure out how to link to that sometime later today, but in the meantime, all the rightwing posturing over some perceived slight on "Christmas" is answered pretty well I think in this post from a blog by a military chaplain in Iraq, Father Tim, the cousin of my old friend Mike Graham. Check it out, and then check out his blog, it's a pretty original perspective on our involvement there.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

JUST A SIGGESTION

Obama should ask Gary Snyder to write a poem and read it for his inauguration and then make Snyder head of the Environmental Agency.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

LOVE & SEX

Why didn’t I know about this flick? It came out in 2000, and has Jon Favreau playing the same kind of schlubby lovable hopeless-romantic-trying-not-to-be that he did so well in SWINGERS, and Famke Janssen in the lead role, an actress I don’t know why I haven’t paid more attention to before this (she’s certainly been in a ton of movies since).

She’s like the Lisbeth Scott to Julia Roberts’ Lauren Bacall (back when there were “B” movies as the opener to the feature film on the typical double bill, there were “B” actors who for the most part were the poor man’s version of the big stars, like Randolph Scott to Gary Cooper, or Lisbeth Scott to Lauren Bacall, etc.)

Anyway Hanssen is so delightful in this movie—funny, sexy, beautiful, smart, and not afraid to look anything but all of the above either—I could have watched her in this role for many more hours.

Every time I thought the movie was becoming predictable, it would surprise me, usually with a laugh out loud recognizable but unexpectedly real as well as funny twist. That’s to the writer/director Valerie Breiamn’s great credit (she’s amazingly multi-talented having also worked as an actress, starting out in a small role on Cagney & Lacey in the 1980s, around the same time I did a bit on that show as “The Don Juan Killer” as I remember it).

This little movie, LOVE & SEX, is a gem, and rang true to a lot of my experiences in the twin topics of the title. Check it out and see if it matches any of yours. Worth the effort if you haven’t already seen it.

THE OBAMA EDUCATION TEAM SHOULD WATCH THIS

As my son Miles pointed out when I shared this link (which I got from my friend Yael Klaesson) with him.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

IF I HAD A WORST LIST, THIS GUY WOULD TOP IT

Just for doing to Max Clelland what he did (check out the link on this one to the ad that recast a Viet Nam War hero who lost three limbs there into an ally of Bin Laden!).

This race is still undecided (there's a rematch scheduled for early December, and the Democrat, Martin, has nowhere near the resources of this troll).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

JUST A QUICK THOUGHT

If I haven't said it already, just a reminder for those worried about Obama's picks for various positions in the cabinet and elsewhere in the administration.

From my perspective, it seems obvious that he is trying to avoid the mistakes of both Carter and Clinton, the two most recent Democratic presidents, as well as obviously the mistakes of the present administration.

Carter came to DC as an outsider and brought his own team with him who, unfortunately, weren't experienced or even well-schooled in the ways of the Congress and the various federal agencies and departments. They were bright, amazingly well intentioned and even in some ways idealistic. And they got their butts kicked by the oldtime pols and longtime DC and federal government insiders. Even sabatoged by a lot of those folks.

Clinton came in a little more knowledgable and with a team much more so. But they underestimated the Republican opposition and growing propaganda arm, used so well to keep a health care plan from succeeding. And then had to make too many concessions to the Republicans to get anything done at all.

Obama seems to be preparing a team that has some federal government experience, most often from the Clinton years, (ala his pick for Attorney General), whose experience he can use to his ends. And remember, they will all serve at his discretion, which they and he both know very well.

If, for instance, Hilary becomes Secratary of State (if they can work out the Bill Clinton obstacles to that) she will be getting a more powerful position than a junior Senator with little actual power in Congress, and Obama will have eliminated a Senator with greater ambitions who might find some satisfaction in opposing him on some of his agenda she doesn't agree with, whereas in the Secratary of State position, she brings to it her worldwide recognition for toughness, intelligence, experience, and independence, while at the same time knowing full well that at any time Obama can replace her, so her voice will be heard but his agenda will be followed.

He's disarming, as I see it, his most visible opposition from the primaries and the election, so that they'll either be working for him or marginalized. Smart. Even his pushing to let Lieberman keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee in the Senate is pretty smart. He's shown his graciousness and forgiveness, leaving Lieberman in his debt, and if Lieberman should choose to not show his gratitude by following Obama's agenda, he will alienate the only champion he has right now in the Democratic Party and then lose his chairmanship.

Obama has obviously, as everyone points out, followed Lincoln's lead in embracing his enemies and keeping them near where he can keep an eye on them as well as use their better ideas and their experience to his ends. I love this guy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

BURN AFTER READING

I sure am out of step with the critics. I thought NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was mostly bad movie making. But I loved BURN AFTER READING.

Somehow, critics found NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN just too real to not be overly impressed by. While I found it condescendingly over the top in a way that didn’t seem intended, and almost campy in its glorification of evil and violence in a world unable to spot a giant killer with a uniquely bad haircut dragging a giant polished steel something around with him on open roads and through the centers of small cities, stalking and murdering and ramming cars into whatever and never being noticed or able to be identified and so getting away with it.

But here comes this year’s Coen movie, BURN AFTER READING, and because it’s deliberately over the top in ways it telegraphs immediately (merely by casting John Malcovich for one), it seemed to disappoint every reviewer I read, with many of them being especially taken aback that such a fine cast was wasted on a what they saw as a trivial or pointless or meandering plot and two dimensional characters.

Hello! Any of you critics see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN?

But what can I say, my taste is my taste and theirs is theirs.

There’s also that syndrome working where if I hear a movie is supposedly great and go in expecting greatness I’m often disappointed, but if I hear a movie is not so great or even bad, I go in expecting to be disappointed and am often pleasantly surprised. That was my experience with BURN AFTER READING.

This is the beginning of award-season publicity drives, so I get invitations to screenings and DVDs of some movies in the mail trying to get my little vote for the Screen Actors Awards or for The Writers Guild Awards.

A DVD of BURN AFTER READING was actually Fed Ex’ed to my apartment. So I put it in the DVD player and figured I’d quickly see what the critics were so dismayed over. But instead I started chuckling at what I began to dig as a very entertaining dark comedy.

The plot actually thoroughly kept my interest, its twists and turns offering a lot of surprises and some out-loud laughs. And the ending, for my taste, was perfect.

Everyone in it is terrific too. From the expected greatness of Tilda Swinton doing an even more extreme version of the ice queen she owns, and George Clooney doing the womanizing guy-without-a-clue he does so well, only the extreme version of that, with his buddy Brad Pitt in what I’ve heard called “the mimbo role” (male bimbo) for which he was really trampled on by the critics but I found funny and on the money.

Malkovich even didn’t bother me as he too often has in recent years (I loved him in his early film work, but, full disclosure, I met him twice in Hollywood but he didn’t seem to notice). The Coens use his capacity for self-pitying narcissistic rage so well, he’s a delight to watch.

As is Frances McDormand, who many critics felt was completely wasted in her role as a gym trainer obsessed with cosmetic surgery. But I found her character completely believable, in the context of an over-the-top comedy.

And then the character actors who usually get no attention, like Richard Jenkins. Although after his masterly star turn in THE VISITOR earlier this year and now his supporting role in BURN AFTER READING, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get some kind of nomination.

But also lesser known supporting actors, like J. R. Horne, who gives a tour de force performance as the Tilda Swinton character’s divorce lawyer (more full disclosure, I’ve run into him at auditions, though I don’t know him personally, but he’s always personable and funny).

The best thing about BURN AFTER READING is its skewering of the intelligence community, specifically the CIA. On that level it’s one of the most perfectly targeted satires in recent years.

But I guess if you want a serious expose of CIA malfeasance, like MICHAEL CLAYTON tried to do for corporate evil, you won’t like BURN AFTER READING. But if you want a good laugh at the absurdity of what often turns out to be the lack of intelligence in much secret intelligence, this’ll give you a few chuckles, as well as a few surprises.

Or if you just want to see a bunch of really terrific movie actors having a ball doing a dark comedy (with the kind of abandon and push-the-envelope daring of the 1960s’ “black comedies” as they used to call them, not because of the skin color of the cast but because of the darkness of the humor), see BURN AFTER READING.